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New Edition – Heart Break (1988)

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“People think our life is easy
But we’re living under pressure
Just to be on top
And to give the best that we can give you
And to never let you down
We’ll keep strivin’ for perfection
N.E. Heartbreak is coming to your town..”

-New Edition, “N.E Heartbreak”

Why do I love teen pop? Why would music intended solely for kids entering puberty appeal to someone entering their 30s? I’ve been mulling this over ever since I started Digital Get Down almost three years ago. Most of the answers are obvious: nostalgia. Pining for freewheeling teenage years I never had. Living vicariously through the music of young people. A knee-jerk love of any music that isn’t critically respected. Respect for music designed to empower and comfort teenagers, who need that more than anybody. All of these reasons are valid, in their own way.

What brings me back to teen music, though, is the people involved. The singers and the dancers and the songwriters and the producers – but mostly the singers. The entire industry of teen pop is predicated on finding young, good looking people who can sing well enough to be thrown in a recording studio to sell the hottest hit by the hottest hitmakers, thrown on television and social media to sell the product, making a little money for themselves while making a TON of money for their record company. Pretty people do the legwork, while nameless creeps in suits make bank. These are young people not chosen for their talent, their ability to write songs or their ability to express themselves. Young people who push everything else out of their lives, drop out of school, can’t see their families or their boyfriends or girlfriends, end up devoting their entire lives to pushing a product for some nameless suited men just so they become stars themselves. Sometimes it doesn’t even work: they put out one album that hits, the next one fizzles, and they’re old news. The suits have made their money, so they replace the 19 year olds with 14 year olds who can make money for them again. And the once-promising teen stars are spent by their 20s. They’re burned out and disilluioned and nobody wants them anymore.

This is what happens most of the time. I’ve found myself staring at boy band and girl group album covers, the O-Towns and the B*Witcheds, wondering who these people really were. What did they have to say? What are their hopes and dreams? What kind of music would they make if they didn’t have a filter? If they didn’t have to make it just for one audience? I’ll never know. Nobody will ever know. Their careers ended too soon.

But the success stories. That’s what makes it all worth it for me. When teen pop kids, treated like nothing but a replacable commodity, fight for creative control, get it, and make a record so good that every hater is proven wrong. Records like The Big Room and Celebrity and Into Your Head: man, that’s what this is all about.

That’s why I’m thrilled to talk about New Edition’s 1988 record Heart Break. Because of all the teen pop breakthroughs I can name, this one is the best and most satisfying. I’d wager it’s the best boy band record ever made. Never has a boy band managed to take control of their own destinies as well as New Edition did here, never has one silenced critics as effectively, never has one managed to pack in this much personality and verve, and never has one ever been able to express what it’s like to actually be in a boy band as well as this one.

Why exactly is Heart Break my favorite boy band record, and the culmination of everything Digital Get Down stands for? Let’s dig right on in, because there’s nothing I would rather talk about.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

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Remember where we left New Edition last? It’s OK if you forgot, dummy, I’ll refresh your stupid memory: 1986. Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike were in a vulnerable state after the departure of founding member Bobby Brown the year before, leaving the guys to tour All For Love as a quartet. This left them open to the most dreaded teen pop curse in all the land: the “One Member Leaves And EVERYTHING FALLS APART” curse, the same that claimed the lives of our beloved Spice Girls, Take That, and countless others.

Doubt was setting in. The boys were approaching their 20s, leaving behind the precious teenage innocence that had made their first few records so charming. The only record they managed to put together as a foursome, Under The Blue Moon, was a squeaky-clean doo wop covers album that only white American parents could love. It wasn’t an embarrassment and kept them in the public eye, but it was dangerously out of touch in the pop landscape of 1986, the same year hip hop hit the mainstream with Run DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill. If New Edition stuck with their “Jackson 5 For The Eighties” style, they would soon get swept under the rug.

So what did the guys do? Well, they did two things. Two wonderful things, two things that helped make Heart Break the perfect boy band album for 1988. Let’s talk about them!

JIMMY JAM & TERRY LEWIS

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There was one other innovative pop record in 1986 that stood out among the rest: Janet Jackson’s Control, the record that defined Janet as a modern pop titan and introducted the world to the production talents of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, two of the tip-top best pop producers of the 80s. Former members of Morris Day and the Time, Jam and Lewis gave Control a unique sound – R&B smashed together with discordant 808s and samples borrowed staright from hip hop. It was a blunt and aggresive sound, jarring for anybody used to the softer side of R&B but perfect for a young independence-hungry Janet Jackson. It struck a chord, and would result in one of the best pop genres to grace is beautiful Earth: New Jack Swing.

I don’t know who it was, but someone in New Edition’s camp must have realized Jam/Lewis were the perfect dudes to help turn the squeaky-clean boy band into a powerhouse Man Band. While it could be argued that some of the autonomy was pulled away from the NE guys here – Jam/Lewis, with only a few exceptions, wrote every song on Heart Break by themselves – their songwriting and production fits NE’s personalities so perfectly that it feels personal. Heart Break, like Control, is a statement of self-actualization and self-worth, a watershed moment in the lives of these young men captured on record, highlighted and emboldened by two of the best producers in the game.

JOHNNY GILL

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I failed to mention earlier that Bobby Brown wasn’t the only New Edition member eager to split from the group. Shortly after he left, none other than lead singer Mr. Ralph Tresvant was thinking of leaving too, eager to start a solo career and (maybe rightly, at least at the time) thinking that NE was a sinking ship. This left the other guys in a precarious position, because Christ who the heck would care about a pop group consisting only of Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, and Ronnie Devoe? That sounds like commercial poison!!

Ha ha! Ha. Hey. Hey there. Alright then.

Hey! Hi! Hi.

So seeing that Ralph was ready to go, the boys were eager for a replacement, and made yet another brilliant move that would bring Heart Break to a new level: they picked Johnny Gill, a friend and contemporary who notched a couple of minor R&B hits as a young man but was ready for something new. Long story short, Johnny wouldn’t be Ralph’s replacement for long – Ralph would change his mind and rejoin New Edition real quick, making Johnny more of a replacement for Bobby Brown – but his voice would bring so much to the New Edition sound, and to Heart Break.

Gill’s voice, right next to Jam and Lewis’s clattering power-production, is the most exciting new sound in New Edition’s arsenal circa 1988. The dude has a massive voice, full-throated and powerful, an overwhelming presence. His voice is so strong it almost threatens to overshadow his bandmates, who wisely choose not to overuse him. Johnny’s voice is mostly used as a secondary lead, providing a dramatic push whenever the boys need it, an awesome tool at their disposal. And once Johnny finally gets to sing lead, it’s the last track on the record and it’s fucking main event status. But we’ll get to that later!

I don’t want to take anything away from Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike or even Bobby here. They’re all fine singers, and bring their A game to Heart Break. But Mr. Gill is in another league, and provides the boys with a perfect counterpoint. Whereas the rest of the gang still have those sweet innocent boy voices, Johnny sounds like a man. Meshing these voices together spells out the theme of Heart Break in a subtle way: they’re still boys at heart, but adulthood is coming for them, ever-present, inescapable.

HEART BREAK: A BOY BAND TALE

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How many boy band records feel personal? Real? Like the boys are being honest with you, giving you a part of their actual personal life?

Lots of boy bands try to do this. Take a look at the writing credits on the last few One Direction albums and you’ll see Harry, Niall, and the rest of the boys’ names popping up on more than one track. Go dig up your beat up CD jewel case of *NSYNC’s Celebrity (you know you still have it) and take a look at those writing credits. Justin and JC co-wrote most of those songs. Same thing with the Backstreet Boys’ Black & Blue, which features a couple songs written solely by the boys themselves.

Despite their assembly-line image, boy bands do want to be honest with their audiences, to give them an idea of what they’re really like. But listen to any of the music I listed above, and you’re not going to get much out of it in terms of personality. Even Celebrity, with soon-to-be-solo star Justin Timberlake tearing it up, doesn’t feel personal or intimate. It’s just a good pop album.

We can’t blame the boys for this. It’s the machinery. How the heck are you going to fit a personal and honest voice on a mass-marketed pop record, fighting through a maze of songwriters-by-committee? Can’t do it. It’s a cloudy foggy dank mess and it’s impossible to get noticed. That’s the raw deal of being in a boy band: you get instant fame and adoration, but you don’t get control.

Heart Break stands alone. No foggy dank shit mess here. This is five young men giving their audience a portrait of who they are and what it’s like to live a day in their shoes. It’s up there with A Hard Day’s Night in the pantheon of autobiographical teen pop art, but where the Beatles portrayed themselves as freewheeling fun youths, New Edition are out to prove that they’re the best and hardest working group out there, assertive and original but also vulnerable and thoughtful. New Edition are out to prove that they’re human, not pop puppets but hard working young men who deserve our resepct. And they pull it off.

I’d like to give you a rundown of exactly what makes Heart Break distinct from every other record of its kind. This is the one time I get to talk about this album so I’d like to try and get everything out, everything I appreciate and love about this record, everything that makes it what it is.

So yeah – let’s do that!

THE INTRODUCTION

Heart Break‘s introduction sets a tone, a feel. We hear an eerie synth that leads to distant crowd sounds, and then we hear the guys’ voices, floating, phasing in and out, otherworldly:

“In our world, all things must change
Just as New Edition has been rearranged
Emotionally hurt, we shed a tear
But through your love, our tears have disappeared..”

A creepy little poem. The implication here is that NE are waiting backstage, but it feels more like they’re floating through the netherworld, beings divorced of time or space, watching their adoring fans among the starry night. Before things get too weird, we are reminded that this is New Edition: “That’s why this is dedicated to you / so just sit back.. and let us entertain you.”

BOOM! Synth horns snap in, electric guitars squeal, and an over-excited announcer introduces us to the NEW New Edition. And we rip into “That’s The Way We’re Livin,” the boys’ ode to working hard and giving everything for their fans, while we hear fans screaming even LOUDER in the background. So we have a gateway to what New Edition have become: an adult, powerhouse pop group that knock crowds the fuck out night after night. This does not feel like the beginning of a run-of-the-mill pop record – it feels like we’re in on something big. And we are!

The story doesn’t really begin until “Where It All Started.” This here is New Edition’s take on a boy band tradition, the self-aware power anthem. A chance for a boy band to celebrate their greatness at the height of their powers, to prove to the world that they are unequivocally the best out there.

And “Where It All Started” pulls no punches. It’s a direct attack on New Edition’s competition, making it clear that they were the first and best boy band, the originals, the innovators, and that everyone else is a cheap copycat. I’m at a loss to find boy band lyrics that snip at the ass with more fierceness than this one: “It’s nice to be the original / That all the counterfeits like to bite off / We only take it as a compliment / When they copy some of our material..”

It’s a bold move, espcially one coming from a group billed as the “Jackson 5 of the Eighties” in their early years. But as we’ve talked about in previous reviews, New Edition broke out of that mold pretty quickly, and 1988 would see a ton of ripoff groups coming up and banking on their success. “Instead of being clones / Why don’t you think of something on your own?” Let’s remember that New Edition were only a year away from being eclipsed by a group dubbed “the white New Edition,” the New Kids On The Block, managed by New Edition’s former manager Maurice Starr. Hangin’ Tough would sell millions more than all of New Edition’s 80s records combined with music directly knocking off Candy Girl, just because New Kids were white and New Edition were black.

On “Where It All Started,” New Edition call bullshit, putting the New Kids on notice before they even had chance to jack their style. It’s a thrilling moment, a statement of purpose from a black group in a white-dominated pop world, and – with due respect – makes it hard to listen to the New Kids seriously after hearing it. New Edition were always superior, and they show it here.

THE BIG SINGLES

Heart Break is an 80s pop album, so it needed to two great singles to get over: a high-energy pop track, and a tender ballad. So we have “If It Isn’t Love” and “Can You Stand The Rain?” both written by Jam/Lewis. “If It Isn’t Love”, Heart Break‘s debut single, is a shot across the bow, showing off the perfect cohesion between Jam/Lewis’s production and New Edition’s maturing R&B, an exciting minor key dance track that takes a sudden major-key turn in its bridge. “Can You Stand The Rain” is one of my favorite boy band ballads ever, in rare company, an atmospheric and heart-heavy piece of beauty. Instant classics.

I don’t have much else to say about these two, other than they’re great, and they show off what a good fit Jimmy and Terry were for these guys. These are the two you’ll find on greatest hits comps, and they deserve to be.

Also, before we continue, I need to encourage you to watch the video for “If This Isn’t Love”, which features some HOTT dance moves and helps illustrate the themes of Heart Break better than anything I could say here.

THE SKITS / “N.E. HEARTBREAK”

Ah yup, Heart Break has skits. Nobody likes skits and I know why. They’re dumb alot of the time, and the skits here aren’t a whole lot better. But credit where credit is due: Heart Break was doing skits before even De La Soul did them (another notch on their innovations belt), and they’re important to the vibe New Edition are trying to get across here. All three skits are just some backstage patter between the guys, nothing more nothing less, but they’re fun little windows into their personalities. We get to hear them doof around with vocal exercises, argue over which “honeys” they’re gonna smooch on, and congratulate themselves on a job well done after a long tour.

And it’s not just the skits – we also hear the guys bullshitting between songs, shouting stuff like “YOU DIDNT KNOW WE WERE COMIN’ BACK LIKE THIS!” and “YO MIKE, DONT EVEN SWEAT IT!” They’re small lil moments, but considering how guarded and invincible boy bands like to portray themselves, it’s cool and refreshing. I feel like I know New Edition, hearing a record like this. I’m learning something about them as people.

Heart Break‘s first skit leads into the titular “N.E. Heartbreak,” an amazing mix of problematic tendencies and forward-thinking New Jack power. Let’s not ignore what is problematic here. “N.E. Heartbreak” does not paint a wonderful picture of NE’s female fans, portraying them as needy jezebels trying to get a piece of the boys’ fame. It’s also established on a later track, “I’m Coming Home,” that these guys all have girlfriends they haven’t seen in awhile. So uhhh, fellas, can we talk about this? What’s goin on here??

We can’t ignore or hand-wave the misogyny here. But “N.E. Heartbreak” is an important moment, and I’ll tell you why. Since Candy Girl New Edition have taken shots at straight rap, with varying degrees of success. But “N.E. Heartbreak” marks the first time they got it right. Listen to “Pass The Beat” and “Kinda Girls We Like” from their first couple of records and come back to this one. Those first two tracks are cute and fun, sure, but the guys sound more like they’re talking in rhyme than rapping.

“N.E. Heartbreak” sounds like actual rap, or at least close enough to it. I’m not going to sit here and tell you these guys were great rappers by any stretch, and you could argue that there’s more speak-singing here than actual rapping. But the guys have actual flow here, for the first time in their careers. This was only the beginning: you can trace a direct line from “N.E. Heartbreak” to Bell Div Devoe’s Poison. This, right here, was New Jack Swing’s Big Bang moment.

“N.E. Heartbreak” also has an unusal amount of pathos for a boy band brag track. It’s a feint. A ruse. The skit lead-in tricks you into thinking you’re about to hear the NE guys bragging about their sexual conquests on the road, but instead we get a list of failures, heartbreaks, lonely nights. According to “N.E. Heartbreak,” the life of a boy band on the road is empty, unfulfilling. “People think we don’t get lonely / But we’re far away from home / One minute, 20,000 people / But then they go home, we’re alone..”

New Edition aren’t telling stories of hard love on the road, or even routine sexual failure. They’re telling stories of trying desperately to connect with another human being in the haze of fame, only to fail time and time again. “Is it me she wants, or is it my fame?” When you’re in a boy band, is it even possible to tell who loves you for who you are, especially when you’re 18-19 years old? When you’re already too young to totally understand what love is? It’s a confusing, terrifying, miserable situation, the feeling that fame has clouded your capacity to love and be loved, the curse of being forever alone. That is “N.E. Heartbreak.” “Beware of N.E. Heartbreak / spreading fast, and there’s no cure..”

“N.E. Heartbreak” is Heart Break‘s core, its still-beating heart. It’s simultaneously the most forward-thinking musical moment of the record, and also its most emotionally crushing. My God, it’s everything.

“COMPETITION”

“Competition” is the one song on Heart Break that sounds like it could have popped up on All For Love or even New Edition: light synths, pre-programmed drums, saxophone. There’s no aggressive drum-n-bass clattering here, and it sounds so musically distinct from everything else on the record that I suspect Jam/Lewis didn’t produce it (although I can’t prove this). So it’s easy to call “Competition” a step back, a filler track.

But there’s more here than meets the eye. “Competition” was solely written by Ralph Tresvant, which explains its simpler sound. It’s like a song Ralph wrote on a lonely tour night, alone in his hotel room, sipping a diet Coke and staying up too late, trying to get a grip on how far he’s come and where he’s going. From what I’ve heard, it’s a song about Bobby Brown.

Again, I can’t verify this, but I imagine Bobby’s shadow must have loomed large over the recording of Heart Break. Even if Johnny Gill was about as good of a replacement for Bobby as they could get (and, if you ask me, an upgrade), he was still new. He didn’t grow up in Boston with the rest of the guys. He wasn’t there right from the beginning. He didn’t have the touring war stories, he didn’t brave the Maurice Starr divorce. As well as Heart Break manages to hide it, New Edition became a band of permanent disunity from the loss of Bobby. It wasn’t just the loss of a bandmate, it was the loss of one of their best friends.

So I like to imagine “Competition” as a sweet little song from Ralph to Bobby, an outstretched hand to a former friend turned enemy. “This competing with friends / will it never end? / I’m losing all of my patience / I need a way out..” That line is the giveaway. “Competition” tries to frame itself as a world-healing anthem, almost as if it’s trying to hide its true intentions, but those lines above lay it all out. Let’s remember that Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel came out the exact same day as Heart Break, and the two toured together as a double bill that same year. It makes you wonder: did they talk backstage? Did they even acknowledge each other? When Ralph sang “Competition” night after night, did Bobby know?

Who knows. Either way, I’m glad “Competition” is on the record, in direct contrast to the brutal slapback of “Where It All Started.” New Edition could have attacked Bobby with the same righteous contempt they did for Maurice Starr and his white boy ripoffs, but they couldn’t do it. The respect and the love was too deep. Despite the differences that drove them apart, “Competition” shows that New Edition still cared about their biggest competitor, and weren’t afraid to show it.

“BOYS TO MEN”

Heart Break‘s last act is beguiling, quiet. “Competition” leads to the atmospheric ballad “I’m Coming Home,” and the narrative of the record comes to a close: the tour is over, the guys are going home to their girlfriends, and on to the rest of their careers. This chapter of their lives is over. And before we leave, we end with “Boys To Men,” the moment where the boys take stock in what they’ve experienced, what they’re feeling, and where they’re going.

This is hard to write. “Boys To Men” is the one song on Heart Break I always come back to, the one I can’t get out of my head. This whole review could have just been about this one song. Never have I heard a boy band look at themselves in the mirror so directly, and report back with as much clarity as New Edition do here. It’s right there in the opening lines, lines that rattle and twist you:

“Growing up can be a pain
You’re not an man until you come of age
We’ve given up our teenage years
In the effort to pursue our careers

Who assumes responsibility
Of having to support our families?
Who’s protecting us from harm
Is there anyone around that we can trust?”

Here’s the whole story, sung by Johnny Gill in that initimable full-throat emotion voice. They’re tough lines for me. I started Digital Get Down with the goal of helping people understand teen pop in a more thoughtful way, to give it a second look, to look into the lives of the artists putting their heart and soul into work most people shrug off. It was a lesson for me, too. I wanted to understand the people behind these records, to respect them and celebrate their effort even when the album didn’t turn out to be that good. I wanted to give teen pop the same consideration and thought that rock and indie got from other critics.

But there’s only so much I can do, as much as I try. I can empathize, but I can never understand. I don’t know what it’s like to be young and black in the Boston projects, to get pulled out of school at age 11 for a risky shot at stardom. To have to rehearse dance moves and singing day in and day out with very little reward. To finally get a little success, only get screwed over by a shady manager and see barely any money from your massive radio exposure and immensely successful tour. To ditch that manager, only to see them form a group that rips you off and becomes more successful just because they’re white. To be the breadwinner for your family at age 15, living in fear every day that your next record is going to flop and you’ll lose everything. You’ll fail your mother and father, your brothers and sisters. You friends and loved ones. Yourself.

“So we search for answers to our questions
Looking for an answer
No answers but we’re taught a lesson everytime
Through mistakes we’ve learned to gather wisdom
Cause lifes responsibility falls in our hands..”

This was New Edition’s entire life. The life of a teen pop group. After three years of doing this blog, I don’t think that life came into clearer view for me than it did the first time I heard “Boys To Men.” Teen pop success is a never-ending struggle that never has a good ending. Either you fail and you’re a forgotten wash-up, or – even worse maybe – you succeed and you’re constantly under media scrutiny, constantly trying to top yourself, never satisfied. For three years I’ve tried to understand, but I’ve never had an experience like this. The reporting has been done, and it’s “Boys To Men.”

So what else can I say? I feel like I’m starting to repeat myself. “Boys To Men” is the most important boy band song, to me. It’s everything being in a boy band is about, every reason boy bands deserve your utmost respect. You will find it all here.

KEEP ON LEARNING, KEEP ON GROWING..

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Man. Where do we go from here? For New Edition, Heart Break was their swan song, at least for the 80s. The guys would go separate ways by the end of ’89, pursuing side projects without formally breaking up. As much as I love their records, splitting up might have been the best career decision they ever made. Within only the next year, all five members of the group would storm the charts: Ralph with “Sensitivity,” Johnny Gill with “Rub You The Right Way,” and the remaining guys with the all-powerful Bell Biv Devoe. This isn’t even counting Bobby Brown, who was still riding off of Don’t Be Cruel‘s juggernaut success. By 1990, all 6 former members of New Edition had become New Jack superstars, pop innovators, legends. The Jackson 5 of the 80s had become some of the most exciting pop performers the world over.

And Heart Break led the way. I don’t think the group intended it to be a final statement, but it feels like one. New Edition wouldn’t come together for another record until 1996, with both Johnny Gill and Bobby Brown, after they’d all become successful on their own and their egos had inflated to the size of weather balloons. They’d never be those little kids from Boston again. They’d never be the same.

So it goes. I hope we remember the story of New Edition in the 80s as an important one, the story of six guys who made pop music better, more personable, more fun. They were the finest boy band to grace this Earth. And I’ll miss them.

And what else am I going to say? I’ve said my piece. This is all I’ve got left for now. If you’ve hunkered down and read all of this, thank you. I hope you’ve come to respect New Edition the same way I have. If I’ve managed to give you even a little piece of my love for teen pop, that’s all that matters. That would mean the world to me.

If not, hey, can’t say I didn’t try.

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B*Witched – Awake And Breathe (1999)

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B*Witched are one of those groups I still can’t get a handle on, a surface-level disposable teen lady group that specialized in three things: 1) fun, bubbly, well-crafted singles, 2) forgettable teen pop throwaway deep cuts, and 3) god-fuckingly beautiful chamber pop melodies. Their self-titled debut album jumped between all three of these so quickly it was almost dizzying. Nauseating. You sit there and listen to the whole thing and your head spins and you feel weird as heck, ’cause you just heard all these songs of such varying quality that it’s hard to tell what it is you’re hearing or what you’re doing, in your life. Or what the heck kind of band B*Witched were supposed to be!

I mean, we know what they were supposed to be. The Irish Spice Girls, cute and cocky and spunky and Girl Power. They had fiddles and bagpipes in their songs, ’cause they were Irish! This was their image, this was their design. Lead singer Edele Lynch had the perfect voice for this kind of material: sweet, likable, on-key, occasionally snarly and rockin’ when a track called for it. Their songs were mostly written and produced by the same three folks: UK pop stalwarts Ray Hedges and Martin Brannigan, with occasional help from Tracy Ackerman and the ladies themselves.

The question becomes, what did these people want out of B*Witched? What were they trying to create? From singles alone, the story tells itself: on B*Witched, you get the fun teen sillies of “C’Est La Vie” and “Rollercoaster,” along with the ballads “To You I Belong” and “Blame It On The Weatherman” (the last of which is the only single to provide a brief glimpse into Witched’s odd bursts of sophistication). The back half of the album, though, goes in another direction: freaky teen rock like “We Four Girls” and “Freak Out”, regrettable slowies like “Castles In The Air” and “Like A Rose,” and wonderful likable pop-rock like “Never Giving Up.” And then, finally, we end with “Oh Mr. Postman,” the most lovingly and wonderfully conceived song to be placed at the very end of a teen pop record, where 0% of teens are guaranteed to hear it.

You’ll have to forgive me, recapping B*Witched after I already reviewed it. The truth is, after two years, it’s the one Digital Get Down-reviewed record I think about most. Almost entirely because of “Oh Mr. Postman.” Who crafts a song of that caliber  just to throw it away? How can we think of B*Witched as a teen pop also-ran when that song exists? We can’t, is the answer. We need to re-think and rebuild. We need to recognize that we are never really going to know who the fuck B*Witched are. Ever.

And that’s OK. I went into Awake And Breathe, B*Witched’s second record, not really knowing what to expect. Not knowing if the big “what the fuck is going on here?” question would be answered. Would B*Witched continue with the cute Irish-stereotype teen pop? Would they try to mature? Would they follow the lead of “Oh Mr. Postman” and turn into a wonderful ELO-inspired chamber pop band, bringing a sweet sophistication to a genre that often doesn’t have a whole lot of it? What is going to happen, here?

“If It Don’t Fit” is enough to give me hope, and the best way to open a second B*Witched album. It’s a spark and a jump right from the word go. “IF IT DON’T FIT!” There’s Edele Lynch, wailing well out of range, selling every moment of her performance, pushing herself to the limit. Heck, it is so good. It’s the kind of immediate burst of excitement you wouldn’t expect from a B*Witched record. Not this soon!

“If It Don’t Fit” is similar enough to B*Witched’s previous hits to warm us with its familiarity while amping everything up beyond the beyond til we start to hit new cool as hell territory. It replaces silly Irish gimmickry with aggressive country-rock fuckyouitude. Did you think B*Witched could pull off a “fuck you dude” song? I didn’t either, but here it is! Lines like “the way you’re chewing your gum, it wrecks my head / Why don’t you bite on these words that I’m sayin, baby?” There’s anger here, there’s assertiveness. B*Witched are tired of sitting backing and taking shit from shitty dudes. It’s just lovely.

I want to emphasize: Edele Lynch’s vocal is what sells this, and I think it’s as good an example as any of the range she could pull off. She is committed to this performance. I feel like B*Witched, not unlike contemporaries M2M, were often disregarded from the get-go because they had female vocalists with voices that sounded young and nice. This turned alot of people away, and that’s a shame. A real shame. Because both groups have alot of gems to their name and deserve respect. “If It Don’t Fit” is one of those gems.

Soon we start to realize what Awake and Breathe really is: a record that, for all intents and purposes, is pretty similar to the first one. Let’s not forget, these records were released only a year apart – probably with the sad assumption that B*Witched had only a brief moment of cultural omnipotence left in them before they became bargain bin casualties – so naturally there’s not a whole lot of room for growth there. We can’t fault them for that, really.

What’s interesting is that Awake and Breathe sands down the gimmickry, jokiness and “We Four Girls”-styled Girl Power affirmations in the name of straight-faced professionalism. You’re not going to get anything like the “SOME PEOPLE SAY I LOOK LIKE ME DAD!” chatter during the opening of “C’est La Vie” or the “OHHH I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS!” from “Rollercoaster.” Compare either of those songs to Awake and Breathe‘s most popular single, the hooky and enjoyable “Jesse Hold On,” and you will hear a difference. The hooks are there, sure, but is the heart? Are their hearts really in it anymore?

You’ve gotta imagine they’d be sick of the kooky cute Irish girls image by 1999, only a year after their debut. A year is a long time, when you’re a Irish teen pop act with a forcibly fun image to maintain. Their cheekbones were probably sore from smiling all the fucking time! Damn! They were tired! They’re a music group! They just want to make some good music and sing good songs. “Jesse Hold On,” despite its goofy banjo, finds them in this mode. Good singers delivering a good song. On one hand, it’s good to see the ladies growing a little bit and putting childish things away, but I have to admit that there’s something missing here. The sweet spark of youth. Times are changing. We are losing ourselves. We are losing B*Witched.

Awake and Breathe takes a few more stabs at so-called “maturity,” but they don’t work out too well. Moderate hit single “I Shall Be There” features backup vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and while it’s kind of neat to hear the voices of Ladysmith on a teen pop record (because where else are you going to hear them in the factory-sealed world of teenage music?), I kinda wish the song itself wasn’t a dull retread of “To You I Belong.” “Are You A Ghost?” does not live up to its alluring title. And “Red Indian Girl” is… jeez, I mean, it’s called “Red Indian Girl,” is there anything else I need to say? Who the heck thought this was a good idea? Edele? Keavy? Martin? Who do I need to blame here? Who greenlighted this trash? At the cusp of the 21st century? That shit is embarrassing, ladies. This is not a song you should have included on your record if you wanted me to enjoy it. And gosh golly, that should be your number one priority!

But man, there are still those glimmers of glory that we’ve come to expect from B*Witched. Tucked safely in the middle of the record, we’ve got two of them: “Someday,” the long-awaited sequel to “Oh Mr. Postman.” ELO strings, harmonies, grace and wonder, it’s everything you could have wanted from B*Witched. It will renew your spirit and warm your good heart. And then there’s “Leaves,” which wins the “best experiment” award on Awake and Breathe: it’s a moody electronic ballad, with Edele’s voice blending perfectly with gentle piano atmospherics. It’s such an impressive song, it’s not hard to imagine that B*Witched had more left in them than we would have expected. Without the burden of their Irish image and inevitable teen pop obsolescence, who knows where they could have gone? If they still had “Someday” and “Leaves” left in them, who knows what they could have become?

It was not to be. Awake and Breathe was a moderate hit overseas, but didn’t do much in the United States. It was not a popular record, and to be honest it didn’t deserve to be. This is no The Big Room or Into Your Head we’re talking about here, sadly. Awake and Breathe just wasn’t good enough to keep B*Witched’s career afloat. 4 or 5 keepers do not a good record make. As the story goes, plans for a third record were scrapped when Sony unceremoniously dropped them, and the group split up months later, too disheartened to continue. The only songs they had left in them after Awake and Breathe were some meh-eh covers of “Mickey” and “Does Your Mother Know?”, which definitely don’t show off their best qualities. And that was the end, really.

So we ask again: who were B*Witched? And I’m still struggling with an answer. Here’s the best one I’ve got. B*Witched were a gimmick group that could have been a classic one. A group who couldn’t really pull off a full LP’s worth of material, but could knock you out if you took all the great songs from both records and put em together. A group with a lead singer who, despite any on-the-surface cutesiness, was surprisingly versatile and emotive. A group who, in their finest moments, delivered some of the best and most wholly conceived teen pop compositions of their era. I would love it if that last one was their legacy, instead of that annoying “Irish Spice Girls” tag. They do deserve better.

I wonder if B*Witched still have any fervent fans. I hope they do! The likes of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys still have legions of diehards and likely always will til the end of time, but I don’t think B*Witched do. Is it because they’re women? Is it because they were more flash-in-the-pan? I don’t know. But I do hope there are some superfans out there who love “Leaves” and “If It Don’t Fit” and “Oh Mr. Postman” as much as I do. Hey, B*Witched superfans! If you’re out there, hit me up! Leave a comment! Message me! Email me! I would love to hear from you and hear your stories and have you talk me down for giving Awake and Breathe a lukewarm review. I would love this so much.

Not to mention that B*Witched are back! They’re back, for real! They had a successful reunion on the reality show The Big Reunion and they put out a new EP called Champagne Or Guinness just a couple of months ago! So many the story isn’t over yet, my friends. B*Witched have a chance to reclaim their legacy. Maybe they’ll have another record for me to review somewhere down the line. In the meantime, let’s do these ladies a favor and respect them for the good work they’ve done. Because it is really, really, very good.

New Edition – Under The Blue Moon (1986)

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In 1986, at the height of their global success, hitting their late teens and primed to conquer the world, New Edition released Under The Blue Moon. An album of oldies covers. At a time when Janet Jackson reinvented herself with Control and Run DMC shook up the world with Raising Hell, New Edition recorded an album of old people music for old people.

Now, as far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong here), this was one of the earliest – if not the very FIRST – teen pop oldies albums. Albums where teen pop acts tuck their tight neon pants away, wash the blond out of their hair, and knock out a quicke record of old tunes to appeal to America’s Moms and Dads. Nowadays they’ve become so common it’s almost cliche, but when New Edition broke the mold in ’86 I imagine their fans might have been confused. Why would they do this? Why would a teen pop act, a gift to all the Youth Of The World, waste their time recording a bunch of old snoozers? I can’t give a definitive answer here. Not every teen pop act is the same, you know? Folks do different things for different reasons. All I can do is take a few guesses as to why New Edition, at this precious and crucial part of their career, decided to record Under The Blue Moon. I can’t do much more than speculate here, whoopee! Here we go!

1) Bobby Brown had just left. In one of those classic boy band member departures, Bobby Brown was either kicked out of New Edition or quit willingly. The stories still vary, but the reason he left is never argued: Bobby felt like co-lead singer Ralph Tresvant was taking the spotlight, he wanted more lead vocals and wasn’t getting them, and he felt like NE’s music had grown too cutesy and teenybopper-friendly. To the dude’s credit, he wasn’t wrong – as solid as All For Love was, it was not a step forward, and still found the boys treading through standard cute Jackson 5 moves. Bobby would embark on a thunder-stealing solo career, one that would easily eclipse New Edition in popularity, but in 1986 Don’t Be Cruel was still a couple of years away. New Edition felt no need to compete with him musically, but they also didn’t want to jump too quickly into a new creative project.

They were only a four-man band now: Ralph, Ronnie, Mike and Ricky. It’s an unwritten teen pop rule that losing a single member – especially one as vital and important as Bobby – is a death knell. Band relations fall apart, morale takes a hit, the public starts to sense disharmony. The pressure is on. You’re in a vulnerable position, and if you let it get to you, you’ll be gone within two or three years tops. So New Edition chose to take the safest possible route: an oldies album, one where they could put a sweet modern spin on some classics without having to worry about their next move. It’s a stopgap, basically. A breather.

Makes a lot of sense, in retrospect! The side effect, of course, is that it only strengthened Bobby’s reasoning for leaving the group: Under The Blue Moon is a cutesy, eager-to-please, kinda dated record, one completely lacking in edge or modern appeal. After three years of success, it was time for New Edition to grow up, and they didn’t. Not the best move of their career, and one that would telegraph uncertainty for the group’s future.

2) Trying to appeal to a wider, adult, white audience.. We’ve talked about this a few times in previous reviews but it’s always worth mentioning again. As popular as New Edition were, they never quite acheived the universal success they deserved compared to white acts doing the same thing they were – namely, the Maurice Starr-managed New Kids On The Block, who would form in 1984 and whose debut record saw release in 1986. This is not to deny New Edition’s remarkable popularity among black and white teenagers alike – they had them both, let this not be denied – but they didn’t have the stodgier, older white audience. They likely never would. I feel that, with Under The Blue Moon, they wanted to win them over, to sing doo-wop and soul standards white audiences had found acceptable years ago, to prove that they were a worthy part of pop history. They wanted to clean up their image, scrub away the “kids from the projects” image of their previous records and don 50s-era suits. There’s definitely some repackaging going on here.

Of course, New Edition didn’t need to prove themselves to anybody in 1986, let alone shitty older white people who didn’t deserve them in the first place. Nevertheless, Under The Blue Moon is an interesting – if ill-fated – attempt to show New Edition as modern kids who still respected pop history in their own way.

3) They didn’t know what they were doing. A cynical conclusion, and one I don’t entirely believe, but easy to assume! Because why else would a teen pop act at the height of their youth, the height of their success, resort to an oldies cover album? Because they’re out of it. Out of juice. The tank is empty. They’re getting desperate, they’re trying to appeal to an audience – adults – that will never care about them, they’re taking the easy way out. They’re copping out, they didn’t have enough material, they had no idea what to do next. They’re done. They’ve lost.

In 1986, I don’t think his was an unreasonable conclusion. And I don’t doubt that NE, working through the loss of Bobby, weren’t entirely sure what the heck they were supposed to do. “Not a girl, not yet a woman” syndrome: too old for “Candy Girl” cuteness, too young for a mature reinvention. Under The Blue Moon, in the eyes of their fans, must have felt like a shrug, a step to the side. A way to stand back and let other groups take the spotlight for a little while, so they can work a few things out. So they can dream it all up again. And that’s presicely what it was.

4) They were under contract. This, depressingly, is the most valid reason on this list. This is probably what happened. From what I have heard, New Edition – despite having sold two million copies of New Edition and being of the most visible and beloved teen pop groups of their era – had lost a lot of money trying to get out of their garbage Maurice Starr contract, and owed MCA Records a buttload in legal fees. So they put out a bunch of records very quickly to pay off their debt, including All For Love and Christmas All Over The World. None of these records are bad, per se, but it’s hard not to hear them as contractural obligations more than from-the-bottom-of-their-heart sincere records that they truly wanted to make. Under The Blue Moon has this feel. On the surface, it feels forced. Obligatory.

5) They genuinely loved these songs, and wanted to record them and love them and share their joy with the world. I like this one! While I don’t think I’ll ever like Under The Blue Moon as much as their modern teen records and probably won’t listen to it ever again after this review, I do think it’s a charming, sweet, admirable piece of work. At the very least, I don’t think it’s a toss off. The boys put alot of heart into these songs, especially Ralph, who sounds right at home singin stuff like “Earth Angel” and “A Million To One.” He’s got a tender, youthful, good-hearted delivery, and it elevates these songs. And just from the harmonies, it’s clear that doo wop was an actual for real influence on NE. There’s a certain verve in hearing these kids singing songs their parents probably played for them from birth, their tribute to generations past.

Heck, they even throw in an adorable cameo from Little Anthony in the middle of “Tears On My Pillow”! And they have a fun dialogue! Fuck teens, hello parents! Remember the 50s? How can you resist this??

Not to mention that they don’t perform boring karaoke-esque versions of the old hits, like too many teen pop acts tend to do. It’s modern 80s production all the way here, and while it definitely dates the record (almost every song has the exact same pre-programmed beat and it gets distracting after hearing it 3 or 4 times in a row), it’s cool to hear these dudes sing “Duke Of Earl” and “Blue Moon” in ways that aren’t completely reverent and obvious. Still kind of reverent and obvious, but not completely! There’s even a fun original song at the end “Bring Back The Memories,” which name-checks half the tracks on the record and finds our boys pining for good old days they were never alive to see.

Yes, there is love here. I can feel it. Under The Blue Moon will never be an essential chapter in the New Edition story, and it kick-started a problematic trend in teen pop that led to alot of worse, worse records from worse, worse groups. But it’s still New Edition, with their only album as a foursome, singing songs they clearly love and having a great time. It’s a testament to their talents and singers and performers.

But still, it would find them in trouble. For a group already in danger of looking like squares, Under The Blue Moon found them knee deep in Squaresville. If they didn’t break out and find something new soon, Bobby Brown and the rest of 80s Modern Pop would swallow them whole. What would they do next..

6) They wanted to impress some pretty girls so they could smooch them. Oooooh!

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New Edition – All For Love (1985)

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New Edition’s third record All For Love has one serious moment of excitement, and it’s right at the beginning: an aggressive, startling synth-drum and perfectly harmonized incantation. “COUNT-ME-OUT!” It surprises you, and it sets you up for a new New Edition, a bolder and stronger band with a new and exciting sound.

It doesn’t last long, though. “Count Me Out” immediately settles down after its dramatic intro, easing into a friendly sequel-song to “Cool It Now” that we would expect from New Edition. Ahh, well. They were so close, for that one moment! They were! But still, what we’re left with is pretty great, another solid single from a wonderful group.

“Count Me Out” is no drastic reinvention, but it’s another minor step forward. You can feel a difference, subtle as it may be – the guitar is funkier, the percussion is looser, the boys’ harmonies duck in and out of the track impressively in a way they never have before, surrounding Ralph Tresvant’s typically spunky-youth lead. It’s more of a jam than anything they’d done before, but with all the cute trademarks that made them teenybopper favorites for adults to love.

And it makes no concessions, no attempt to hide the fact that it’s a sequel to “Cool It Now” – heck, if you watch the video, they even go out of their way to establish that Ralph’s girlfriend is the same girl in the “Cool It Now” video (thanks for the continuity, kids!). Of course, we’re moving on: “Cool It Now” presented Ralph in the first flush of love despite his bandmates’ stern disapproval, climaxing with Ralph telling his buds off for the first time and embracing love despite all its pratfalls. In “Count Me Out,” Ralph and his lady are in a happy relationship, but his Bell Biv Devoe buds (it’s just them in the video, at least – Bobby Brown didn’t stick around for the shoot) refuse to understand that Ralph might want to have a night in with his nice lady instead of playing basketball with them. Once again, we get some great charming vocal interplay between them, ending in a wonderful rap-exchange where the two parties vent their feelings once and for all.

It’s a formula for New Edition, albiet a sweet and likable one. I just kinda feel bad for Ralph – dude is just tryin to have some nice romantic time with his ladyfriend! And his friends have been, shall I say, less than understanding! First “Cool It Now” and now this! It’s gettin old, fellas. You’re in your mid-teens for goodness’ sake. You’re gettin too old for this attitude. It’s time to let Ralph have some privacy. It’s time to support your bud.

“Count Me Out” sounds like the beginning of a sitcom plot. Nothing is resolved, here. Ralph insists the dudes can count him out of their weekly brosef hangout, but they seem unable or unwilling to take no for an answer (culminating in the adorably vulnerable line “what about us? we’re your friends!”). Right after this song ends, I can see the embittered Bell Biv Devoe stalking poor Ralph on his date, sneaking cat litter in his girlfriend’s popcorn and tattling to the movie theater usher that, no, Ralph is not 18 and shouldn’t be admitted into Rambo 2. Ralph eventually catches on to the boys’ devilish sabotage, confronts them, and a Lesson Is Learned while schmaltzy synths play in the background. It’s all there. You can see it.

“Count Me Out” finds Ralph Tresvant as Alfalfa and the rest of the guys as the He-Man Woman Haters Club. It’s a funny, goofy, cute dynamic, but one I can’t see these guys pulling off much longer. It is time, indeed, to grow up. And leave poor Ralph alone!

“Count Me Out” is the brightest pop song on All For Love, not their best single but a good one. It wasn’t enough anymore. They needed a change. They needed somewhere to go. Where?

The answer, of course, is “Kickback,” track 6 on All For Love. I’m not sure if this song was an intentional continuation of “Count Me Out” and “Cool It Now,” but it’s telling that it’s vocally dominated by Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike, with very little Ralph to be found. In the narrative of New Edition, Ralph is happy in love and the rest of the guys.. don’t like it? Don’t like love? Their reasons are never made clear, but on “Kickback” we start to understand:

“I grabbed my pillow in the middle of the night
Shook in a ice cold sweat
Curious of what real love feels like
It hasn’t hit me yet”

Oh, ahhh. Now we see. They don’t get it yet. They’ve never felt it. They see their bud Ralph, full-on falling in love and experiencing all of its sugar-high joys, and they don’t understand. They want to know how it feels, they want to understand, but they’re too young and they’re too scared to try.

Gosh, boys. I get it. Damn. You think they tried to hide this one from Ralph? You think after “Count Me Out” they snuck away into a smaller studio and recorded this one in hushed voices? Fearing that Ralph would barge in and be all like, “you losers! I bet you’ve never even SMOOCHED a gal!” Then he’d give them all wet willies? I bet. I bet.

I love “Kickback,” though, especially for that chorus:

“My mama told me that would be our find
You will find love in reality, she said

Baby, you don’t have to wonder
Just kickback and love will come
Love will tap you on the shoulder
Kickback and love will grow”

Oh thank goodness. Let’s not forget that the members of New Edition were still approximately 16 or 17 when All For Love saw release. They’re so young! Too young to really understand love, too young to worry about it. Their mom is giving them good advice: just take it easy and don’t worry about it. It’ll happen, eventually. Be young and live your life, go see a movie with your friend Ralph and play basketball, ’cause that’s what being young is all about. You’ve got plenty of time to fall in love when you’re older.

“Kickback” is in the same league as M2M’s “Don’t Say You Love Me”: good-hearted, honest songs about the teenage experience. New Edition have plenty of non-complex lovey dovey songs (several of which are on All For Love), but it’s a song like “Kickback” that grounds them, strengthens them, makes them human. It’s a real bit of truth dressed up in funky dance-pop clothing. If there’s one track I’d want to point to when asked about New Edition’s unique appeal, it would be this one.

I do think All For Love is a fine album, and a step forward, but I wouldn’t call it one of New Edition’s best. It doesn’t have the adorable kiddy freshness of Candy Girl or the breakawy independence of New Edition. It sticks to what you expect, doesn’t try anything new. A product of a rough period for the group: the guys owed a ton of money to MCA Records due to legal fees, forcing them into the studio for the next few years to record a flurry of new albums to pay them back. Even worse, Bobby Brown – the closest NE had come to producing a star, next to Ralph Tresvant – ditched and/or was rejected from the group (stories vary). Sick of the group’s lack of sexiness, sick of making music for children, sick of sharing the spotlight with Ralph and not getting enough solos, he got the heck out of there. The guys were stuck as a foursome, pushing them into an awkward situation they never asked for.

It’s not a small thing, a band member leaving a group for the first time. They are not replacable, even in a teen pop group. If they aren’t replaced, there’s a hole. If they are replaced, they’re not the same. It’s a sign of disunity, disharmony, trouble. The cracks showing. New Edition were at a peak level of popularity by 1985. Band unity was crucial to keep things running smoothly, and they lost that when Bobby left, their most aggressive and charismatic member. An exciting, promising future turned into an uncertain one. What the heck were they gonna do now??

All For Love was a moderate success, not matching the all-powerful New Edition but keeping hope alive. There’s alot to like on this record: the excitable pure pop of “Sweet Thing” and “All For Love,” the laid-back “Who Do You Trust,” the syrupy ballads “With You All The Way” and “Whispers In Bed.” Then there’s another entirely self-penned track (that is, all of the guys minus Bobby): “School,” a mostly-rapped song about the importance of staying in school no matter what. There’s a real hint of sadness in this one, for me: how much time were these guys able to devote to education? How much did they have to give up, for the sake of their careers? There’s this sense of arrested development when it comes to teen pop acts. Teenagers forced to live an adult life too early, adult situations and adult emotions. They wanted to kickback, but they couldn’t. They didn’t have the time. They needed to keep the money flowing, to keep seedy record executives happy.

All For Love did just that. The guys maintained their popularity, but what else could they do now? All For Love marked an end of innocence for New Edition. They were no longer unstoppable, no longer candy-cute, no longer novelty. If they didn’t take action, if they didn’t adapt and change, they would be lost. It was a do-or-die moment. Were they up to the challenge? Could they do it?

Could they?

One Week One Band: The Backstreet Boys

Hello there friends! Another New Edition review is in the works, I assure you, and we’re gonna be hitting on their best and most influential stuff coming up. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, as you may or may not know, I recently wrote about the Backstreet Boys for an entire week over at One Week One Band, one of the best music blogs out there. Every week a different writer takes over to talk about a band or artist they love, resulting in alot of excellent heartfelt writing. I ended up covering every Backstreet Boys album, along with a bunch of individual songs I wanted to highlight, and I am seriously proud of the work I’ve done. If you’re a fan of Digital Get Down, this is right up your alley.

You can read the whole week front-to-back by starting here, or feel free to jump ahead to a favorite song with this handy table of contents. Honestly, this is some of my favorite writing I’ve done, so please check it out. I am sure you’ll have a good time.

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for more New Edition!

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New Edition – New Edition (1984)

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New Edition were, like many a teen pop group before and after them, destined for obscurity after record one. A cute Jackson 5 knockoff updated for the 80s, silly high-pitched child vocals, songs about candy and popcorn and frivolous teenage feelings. Five marketable, talented young dancing men, all in the firm control of megalomaniacal boy band mogul Maurice Starr. He wrote all the songs, he produced the whole album, booked them, promoted them, turned them into (NO PUN INTENDED!!) stars. It was hard to imagine New Edition without Maurice. He WAS New Edition! What would they be, without each other?

Well. Wellllll.

The basic story, from what I’ve been able to gather: Maurice barely paid the New Edition kids after their wildly successful Candy Girl tour (the rumored amount I’ve heard is $1.87 per member, which feels like an obscene exaggeration but the music business is pretty weird so who knows!). Even at the collective age of 15, the New Edition boys knew they were getting fucked over, so they took legal action. And from the looks of it, our New Edition heroes made out pretty ok: Mr. Starr agreed to release them from their terrible, terrible contract and their lawyers hooked them up with a sweet deal with MCA Records. America’s First And Finest Boy Band were free, now and forever, and were ready to reap the benefits of their newfound stardom.

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Of course, a couple of caveats here. NE’s defeat over Maurice was short-lived – he might have lost control of a group that gave him more success than he ever could have hoped for as a solo performer, but losing New Edition gave him the freedom he needed to create a new group: the New Kids On The Block, billed as the “white New Edition.” In later years, Maurice would admit his frustration that New Edition never become as popular as they could have because they were black, and sadly the New Kids On The Block proved him right. Over time, the New Kids would crush New Edition in popularity, attaining the universal teenage audience New Edition always deserved and ensuring that successful boy bands of the next 20 years would be predominantly white.

Ick. Ychh. Because why would a record company take a chance on an all-black boy band when an all-white one was so much more “marketable”? “Safer”? How many mega-successful boy bands over the past 25 years have been all-black? Heck, how many have even had ONE black member that wasn’t a product of creepo tokenism like S Club 7? Just there to have “hip hop cred”? Garbage. It’s some sad horseshit. But that’s still where we’re at over 30 years later, and we can trace it back to Maurice Starr losing New Edition and replacing them with an inferior white knockoff. Teen pop, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Gosh, that’s sad. I have made myself sad. I didn’t mean to do that! We’re talking about New Edition! How could anyone be sad, talking about New Edition! Nobody, that’s who!!

Yes, despite never being as popular as they should have been, the story of New Edition is anything but a tragic one. It is one of victorious, excellent pop music. These guys did not fumble the ball with their second record, New Edition. They didn’t need Maurice, see. He wrote some solid songs for them, but let’s get real – Candy Girl, despite its charms, was full of some doofball songs for children. Not a winning strategy. If they stuck with that guy, he’d keep writing the same kinda cuteball candy songs for them and they’d never grow. They’d end up like, oh I don’t know, the New Kids On The Block.

Ahh! OOaaaah!!

So New Edition, now with the freedom to select whoever the heck they wanted to write their songs, picked some big names of the 80s, among which were Michael Sambello (the guy who wrote Flashdance‘s “Maniac”) and Ray Parker Jr. (who, of course, we know as the guy who wrote the Ghostbusters theme). Heck, they even wrote some songs themselves! One song was written entirely by them! A bunch of fresh-faced 15 year olds! Success!!

The results? Good. Positive. Hooray! Let’s talk about it!

SOME WORDS ABOUT “COOL IT NOW”: IF I LIKE THE GIRL, WHO CARES WHO YOU LIKE?

“Cool It Now” was important for New Edition for a bunch of reasons. As the first single from New Edition, it hit the top 10 and became their biggest hit at the time, proving without a doubt that the group were much more than a Maurice Starr puppet project. This alone would be a pretty remarkable accomplishment, but “Cool It Now” is also a wonderful step forward for NE, a well-written and charming pop song that pushes them into new territory while never threatening to upend their Candy Girl bubblegum image.

This might not be obvious at first. “Cool It Now” doesn’t sound like a huge leap from “Candy Girl,” but it is. It’s different. Careful listening. “Cool It Now” rejects the nice-kids-singin-about-nice-girls Maurice Starr vibe of “Candy Girl” and hits at more difficult, complex territory. It’s the first time we see the New Edition boys stepping out of their carbon-copy teen pop caricatures to become real, living human beings on record.

It’s a simple drama. Lead singer Ralph likes a girl, but his friends want him to cool it and not lose his head. Hence, “Cool It Now.” Nothing beyond the beyond here lyrically, but in NE’s hands there’s a real charm that transcends the typical. Right when you think you’re hearing a nice lightweight pop song, things take an unexpected turn when Ronnie and Mike rap some advice to silly lovestruck Ralph:

“When ya got a girl who takes her time / You must slow the pace you can’t mess with her mind

If she feels the same she’ll letcha know / Just prepare yourself or be ready to go

And I hope this message stays in your mind / Cause you almost lost a girl who was right on time

There’s one more thing that you got to know / Just cool it down and stay in control”

Now, all things considered, this is not terrible advice to get, yes? Especially coming from teenagers? I love this moment because there’s no malice here: Ronnie and Mike seem to really care about Ralph. They want to help out their bud. “’cause you almost lost a girl who is right on time.” Ralph has been hurt before! Ronnie and Mike remember! They don’t want to see their valued friend and band member get get heartbroken again!!

But then comes “Cool It Now”‘s clincher moment: Ralph, claustrophobic from his bandmates’ intrusive advice, defends himself via another rap. I will once again quote these lyrics in full, because I want to:

“Why you all coming down on me / Tryin to tell me how my life is supposed to be?

I know you’re only trying to help me out / Tryin to show me what life is really about

But this time I’m gonna make it on my own / So why don’t you fellas just leave me alone?

Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike / If I love the girl, who cares who you like?”

Oooooh Ralph. Ralph my man! You did it! Sick burn!!

I love moments like this, moments that push outside of teen pop cliche even a little bit. It makes me happy. It’s not only that Ralph’s defense feels like something someone would actually say (how many pop songs you’ve heard include the lyric “I know you’re only trying to help me out”?), but there’s one line that sets “Cool It Now” apart: Ralph mentions his other band members by name. This is not an anonymous pop song sung by an anonymous young man to his anonymous friends. This is Ralph of New Edition, singing to Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky and Mike of New Edition. “Cool It Now” is a fictionalized drama between the New Edition members themselves.

Yes, I am harping on this, because it’s great and it’s not something teen pop groups ever do. Not much, at least. The New Edition are inviting you in. They want you, the audience, to get to know them better as people. Can you imagine the Backstreet Boys singing lyrics like this? *NSYNC? One Direction, even?? As teen pop grew in the coming decades, more and more boy bands would build off New Edition’s innovations but forget the charm. The personality. This is important, to me. Personality, relatability, a strong voice. These are what separate great teen pop artists from the good. “Cool It Now” is where New Edition find their voice. It’s a cute and simple one, sure, but a voice nonetheless, and one that NE would refine and build through the rest of their career. It’s a great moment for NE, and a great moment for teen pop.

Oh, and it’s also catchy as heck! That too! And it’s funkier and catchier and dancier than anything on “Candy Girl.” No wonder it hit the top 10! Listen to it now and watch the video, one of the best-made boy band videos ever.

“KINDA GIRLS WE LIKE,” “MY SECRET (DIDJA GET IT YET?)”, AND OTHER GEMS AND LOVELIES

New Edition features a few more step-forward moments for our heroes. “Kinda Girls We Like” is a big one – the first New Edition track to be written solely by the guys themselves. Not sure if they only wrote the lyrics and had some ghost-help with the music (they were just kids at the time, after all) but it’s adventurous nonetheless. Not only is it NE’s deepest jump into hip-hop yet, but it features some detailed and ominous production. Especially for a song where the NE guys rap about the kind of girls they think are cute! Scary synths, wiggly keyboards, and a jammin guitar solo coda followed by a key change! Oooh!

Other popular single “Mr. Telephone Man” features tradeoff lead vocals between Ralph and Bobby, portraying a sad, desperate, and – let’s face it – kind of dumb man pleading with his telephone operator cuz he think’s there’s something wrong with his phone when he calls his girlfriend. You know, without realizing that his girlfriend is just hanging up on him. Because she hates him, or is cheating on him, or both. This would work just as a doofy little song, but NE’s pleading gets so desperate by the end of the song that it starts to get uncomfortable. These sad kids gotta wisen up!

Thankfully, we have “My Secret (Didja Gitit Yet?)” to lighten the proceedings and remind us that, sometimes, love is cute and fun instead of painful and stupifying. It’s a brisk, fun pop song that not only bears a passing resemblance to “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” (1984!) but has more in common with Candy Girl than anything else on New Edition. Which is OK! This is teen pop, after all. We need some light fun.

In fact, for the most part, New Edition doesn’t stray too far from the Candy Girl formula. The full-brunt maturation hasn’t happened yet. Ralph and the gang still have those high voices, because y’know, they’re still basically children. Funk tracks like “Hide And Seek” and “Baby Love” would fit right in on Candy Girl, and slower songs like “Lost In Love” and “I’m Leaving You Again” prove that New Edition have yet to master the Art of the Ballad. Gosh, can you blame them? It’s a tricky, elusive art. Takes some big hooks, serious schmaltz power. NE don’t have it yet. It’s OK.

New Edition is a modest, subtle step forward, but a step forward nonetheless. It served its purpose: it proved that the group could not only survive, but floruish without Maurice Starr, and it established them as teen pop’s primary force to be reckoned with in the mid-80s, critically and commercially. It might have stuck close to formula, but it’s where New Edition’s reputation for great pop music begins.

And it only gets better from here. Stay tuned!

The State of Digital Get Down: From My Heart To Yours

Hello former, present, and future Digital Get Down Readers! I have a thing that I want to talk to you about! So let’s talk.

I’ve been wanting to do something different with Digital Get Down lately. Not with the content of the reviews, really, but with its very structure. The way things are workin’ now, I’ve been picking my next teen pop album to review at random every time I sit down to write an entry, which has led to less updates. There’s no form. No structure. No idea what the next review is going to be at any given moment!! Nothing wrong with that, but maybe not suitable for a something like DGD.

So here’s what I’m thinkin. From the word go, my dream for Digital Get Down has been a place where teen pop is not only taken seriously, but reviewed comprehensively. Slow as I might be, I want to review every teen pop album out there, and I’m not gonna stop til it’s all under my belt, ya see? Thing is, there are some artist and groups that I have no patience to drag out for months and years in order to finish up their entire discography. There are all these albums that I want to write about right now, and it kills me because I force myself to review other albums to keep things varied.

So what am I gonna do? Full artist discographies, all at once. For a series of weeks (or months, but hopefully not that long) Digital Get Down will devote itself to one artist and one artist only, reviewing every single record they have made and making their histories a thing. Because that’s the whole point of Digital Get Down, if you ask me!!

Now, this isn’t going to be the only thing DGD does from here on out. There are some one-off albums that will have their own longer reviews, and there are certain artists and groups that only have maybe one or two albums apiece. Those kindsa albums will be reviewed in the normal way. But in the future, please be on the lookout for the following artists to receive the full-discography DGD treatment:

-New Edition
-Westlife
-Boyzone
-Mandy Moore
-Take That
-Robyn
-Boyz II Men
-New Kids On The Block
-Backstreet Boys (solo albums)

And gosh, so many more! There are so many teen pop acts that we need to cover up in here, folks! Next time we tune in, get ready for me to finish up the discography of the legendary New Edition, followed up buy Irish balladeers Westlife. This will be a journey… like no other.

~Love and Peace to you All~

BBMak – Into Your Head (2002)

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BBMak’s Into Your Head is many things. It’s BBMak’s swan song, a commercial non-starter in the dying years of the genre, a well-executed attempt to incorporate heartland rock into their affable radio jangle-pop vibe. But for me it will always be, first and foremost, a summer album. A record bathed in 95 degree browsweat and hot carseats and suffocating humidity. A record lamenting the end of good times that were maybe never all that good in the first place. Par the course for 2002, teen pop’s year in the twilight.

So let’s talk.

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Like any “teen pop” artist in the early 2000s, BBMak were trying to appeal to more adult audience with Into Your Head as a bid for both respect and longevity. But it’s not a stretch to say that Into Your Head is a record for teenagers, not from its lyrical content but from its feel. It is a direct mainline into the dying heart of teenage summer. In order to understand its appeal it is important to remember what summer meant to you as a teen, which is not easy if you are an adult person with a job and summer means nothing but having to shove your shitty air conditioner into your apartment window (if you are blessed to have an air conditioner at all). Into Your Head asks – nay, demands – us to remember summer as a beautiful capsule of youth once again. Are you up for it?

Don’t worry if you aren’t. You don’t have to be. Because I am!

We all have different backgrounds. I don’t know where you come from and what summer was like for you. Here’s what it was for me: the best. Oh, the best. The only time of year that I enjoyed. Like, really enjoyed. Christmastime was nice and autumn was a friendly time, but summer was all that mattered. No school. Pure freedom. All the time in the world to do whatever you want (that your parents will let you get away with, but let’s ignore them for now). Swimming. Swim in your neighbor’s pool or the beach or the YMCA or – man, I don’t know, swim anywhere. Anywhere where there is water. Skateboard. Ice cream man ice cream. Go on a road trip if you’re old enough – heck, even if you’re not!! Go to beach bonfires and stand over the water and watch the sun go down. Man, feel it. You’re free for three months! Completely free!

Gosh, was it intentional? The end of the school year synching up with the most cool-teen-friendly weather possible? Can you imagine if the school year ended in December and started up again in April? Summer would mean nothing. Teens would be caged. Yellowcard wouldn’t have a career. A tragedy. Makes me sick to my bones just thinking about it. Jesus! I’m sorry I even brought it up!

Here’s the problem with teensummer, or at least the problem I remember having when I was a beach-hungry boy: it’s always ending. Always. Every day is another day gone. A countdown to a terrible end, to that last weekend in August when the breeze starts to get a little too cold and the leaves start falling and those awful back to school commercials start airing and it hurts, hurts. Hurts so much. As much as I loved summer, July was the only month I could fully enjoy. August was tough. August was a panic. It was almost over, over and over again. Gotta get in one last pool swim, one last beach hangout, one last drive to the Sundae House. Can’t waste a second. It’ll all be over soon.

Man, it’ll all be over. You’re 18 and college is coming, and nothing will be the same. You’re leaving. You’re getting older. Before you know it you’re gonna be 20 and you’re gonna have to grow up. Enjoy that Slurpee on the beach, my young friend. Before you know it, this will all be gone.

This, in a nutshell, is Into Your Head.

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Into Your Head was released on August 27th, 2002. A summer album released right when parents across the country were forcing their heartbroken teenage sons and daughters to go backpack shopping. You could call this a boneheaded move, but it makes sense. Even in its brightest and most melodic moments, Into Your Head is a wistful goodbye. Wistful is the word. Wistful wistful wistful. Full of wist. The upside is that it might be the finest, most immaculate boy-band product of its time.

They didn’t change a whole lot. Listening to Sooner Or Later and Into Your Head back to back is not a shocking experience. But on Into Your Head BBMak avoid the singles-n-filler pratfalls of the first record, tighten and improve their songwriting, and throw meticulous string arrangements and vocal harmonies into the mix. Also missing from the first record: fun, happiness. Taking its place: Sadness. Reflection.”Staring Into Space” is a cool upbeat rocker, but that’s all you’re getting from these fellas. No “Still On Your Side”s here. The rest of the record is sweet bliss wist watching the sun go down goodbyes.

Into Your Head was not a hit. BBMak were never a big deal, anyway, so who cares? The record’s intended teen audience was not there to receive it. If I could venture a guess, I would venture a guess that Into Your Head was the soundtrack to approximately zero actual summers. It missed the summer of ’02 by a couple of weeks and then was promptly thrown into the bargain bin. This is how it goes.

Let’s not turn this into another “FORGOTTEN LOST CLASSIC” diatribe, shall we? All I can say is that Into Your Head is 10 songs that all could and should have been on The O.C. soundtrack. Definitive summer songs.

I love so many of these songs! Let me tell you why!

“OUT OF MY HEART”

Into Your Head‘s kinda-sorta lead single, and the closest it came to a for-real hit. I remember this being on the radio. My claim that Into Your Head missed the summertime was maybe a lil hasty – “Out Of My Heart” was released a couple months before. BBMak’s gift to the summer of 2002. A dare: listen to that guitar solo at the end and don’t let a SINGLE tear fall from your eye. You can’t do it. No cheating! I’m watching you!

“STARING INTO SPACE”

Cool fun harmony-driven rocker as mentioned above. It’s a rocker and it rocks. Neat harmonies in the bridge. “In the end, the love you receive / is equal to the love you take.” So the more love you take, the more you.. get. Okay.

“GET YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT”

(please, forgive/enjoy the hunkiness of the above video)

Into Your Head finds the BBMak boys taking an obvious but well-executed cues from 70s summertime rockers. And so, we have BBMak copping an obvious Don Henley vibe and nailing it to the wall. You can call it a ripoff if you like, bud! I’ll just sit back and take in those killer hunkharmonies, that dreamy guitar, and that GORGEOUS bridge. Kinda wish this track had been a big hit in the summer of ’03 instead of the Ataris’ cover of “Boys of Summer”. It might be a better song!

Okay, okay. It’s a better song.

“OUT OF REACH”

Amazing. We all dropped the ball by not giving these lads a Grammy for this track alone. To reiterate: We should have all given BBMak all of our Grammys in 2002. All of us. Because this song!

The height of BBMakdom. Higher than “Still On Your Side,” even. They didn’t need to release anything else after this one, and they knew it. Backwards guitars, those building harmonies. “You’re out of reach, but you’re so close!” Harmonies. Harmonies. Oh, can you feel that sadness? Can you see yourself at 17? No you can’t. That part of you is dead. BBMak are here to fill that void.

Did I mention the harmonies? I’m trying to keep my enthusiasm in check, because I understand this record was released after the turn of the millennium, a time when perfectly-blended vocals were easily pitch-corrected and buffed up. And I won’t deny that some harmonies on this record sound too perfect. But gosh, “Out Of Reach.” Few teen acts have hit it quite like BBMak did here. A special moment. You can feel yourself lift.

“RUN AWAY” / “SYMPATHY” / “I STILL BELIEVE” / “THE BEGINNING”

(once again: hunk alert in that above vid)

Here’s how summer ends. “Run Away,” “Sympathy”, and “I Still Believe” build slow before busting out big hooky chrouses (with “Sympathy” memorably breaking into string spasms in its last 30 seconds). A countdown to a terrible end. Three killer non-singles, and then we hit the ironically titled “The Beginning,” as heartfelt a goodbye song as you are likely to find in this genre. And then it is over.

“I don’t want to let you go / but in my heart, now I know / that’s it’s only the beginning of the end.” Well, there you have it. What else is there to say?

Into Your Head is a hopeless fight. It’s a hopeless fight against irrelevancy from a band who were destined to fall apart from day one, a hopeless fight against the waning days of a summer that ended as soon as it began, and my own hopeless fight against pathetic navel-gazing nostalgia that I lost the moment I started this blog. A constant reminder that time is against me.

Into Your Head might be a blip on the radar screen of pop, but let me tell you this. Every summer I will have this record, and every summer it will hurt me. Because every summer it will remind me of what summer used to be, or at least what I think summer used to be, and I’ll get desperate and stupid and try to make this summer just as important and great as I remember it being in my youth and it won’t work. It’ll never work. Into Your Head is a tease. An irresponsible, infuriating, beautiful tease.

Fuck you, BBMak. Fuck your great harmonies and your wistful guitars and your hunky pretty faces. You left this record here and now you’re gone and now I’ll be alone and sad forever. How could you do this? To me? To all of us?

Ugh. You jerks. You dismal, sullen, talented jerks. I’ll miss you.

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B4-4 – B4-4 (2000)

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A FEW WORDS ON THE B4-4 SONG “GET DOWN” AND IT’S ACCOMPANYING MUSIC VIDEO

It’s worthless to talk about B4-4 without talking about this video, because anybody who knows anything about B4-4 has had their perceptions colored by this video in some way, and it’s such an unusual piece of boy band miscellanea that it needs to be addressed. Because if we don’t talk about it now then talking about anything else B4-4 has ever done will be impossible. Because this video will be there, a looming ghost in our minds, waiting.

So let’s talk.

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B4-4’s “Get Down” is a boy band song about cunnilingus. And also fellatio. Oral sex. There is very little attempt to hide this. “If you get down on me, I’ll get down on you.” “No pressure to go all the way – there’s other places we can go.” The idea of a mutual-oral song directed at teenagers (by adult men) is indeed strange (and borderline irresponsible) but let’s tuck those concerns away for now. The video for the song is what will stick with you. If you haven’t watched it yet, please take a moment to watch it. Sit down and stay with it beginning to end. You might need to watch it twice, maybe more. That’s just fine.

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Video’s plot in a nutshell: kid finds a viewfinder in a garbage can. Kid looks through viewfinder and sees the B4-4 boys singing RIGHT at him. Kid finds himself transported to B4-4 World, which is exactly like our world only with more beaches and beach babes in bikinis per capita. Also B4-4 are there. Kid starts flexing for the ladies and finds himself surrounded by their admiring eyes, much to the chagrin of B4-4. These used to be B4-4’s ladies, see, before this kid walked in.

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Rarely do we see the kid and B4-4 together in the video. There are moments of recognition, but they are fleeting. We have a shot of the three B4-4 boys upset that their babes are being stolen, and one more shot of the boys flabbergasted at this new kid’s rad b-ball dunk, but that’s about it. I don’t think the kid directly addresses the boys even once. I’m under the impression they weren’t even on the set at the same time.

All the while, B4-4 are singing “Get Down” directly at the camera. At YOU. Reports of the boys singing their cunnilingus anthem at the kid are grossly exaggerated. They do for a hot second at the beginning, but that’s it. Anything more would imply some sort of meaningful connection between B4-4 and this kid. Rest assured, there is none. B4-4 and their “Get Down” song have nothing to do with this young man’s comng of age journey in B4-4 World. They sleep in separate beds. The kid is having fun in a fantastical beach world, while the boys of B4-4 are hounding you – YOU, the human watching this video – to suck on their penises so they can lick your vagina. They are insatiable hounddogs. Nothing will distract them from their goal.

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You get the impression that whoever directed this thing had no idea what “Get Down” was actually about. Or, more likely, they knew EXACTLY what it was about and tried to hide it in strange ways, somehow making its uncomfortable sexual content all the more apparent. At the same time, we should pass some blame onto the song itself: “Get Down”‘s lyrics are brazenly sexual, but its music is a fanciful kid’s coloring book, about as adorably cutesy cute as millennial boy band music gets. Unlike the similarly icky “Liquid Dreams,” there is no hint of naughtiness in this tune. That sweet harmony-rich carousel intro. That fun-in-the-summertime chorus. Sounds like you’re getting pulled into a storybook! It’s an adventure! Why wouldn’t its accompanying video complement that?

But then you sit down and you watch and you’re left cold. Confused. Scared. That was not the intent. We deserve more than this.

The oral sex isn’t even a problem. Throw it away. I want to know why B4-4 and this kid can’t be friends. Why? We see that this kid clearly had a great time in B4-4 World, to the point where he passes his magic viewfinder to a homeless man as if he was giving him the keys to God’s Kingdom. But it’s more ’cause of the ladies and his rad magic car than the B4-4 guys themselves. And on the other side of the fence, the B4-4 guys seem to hate this kid. Three tanned blonde buffmen seething with jealously at a small boy who never seems to notice them. No human connection here! Not pleasant to watch!

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Heck. What if the boy – let’s call him Clyde – were a big B4-4 fan but lost out on tickets to their concert, only to find that magic viewfinder and get transported to a fantastic magic boy band world? With his heroes, the legendary hunks of B4-4? The cool hunks of B4-4 recognize that Clyde is kind of a geek and vow to make him cool, just like them. They buy him some sweet-ass threads and rockin shades and dye his hair a blazing blonde, just like their own. And in an even more incredible twist, they take Clyde ON TOUR with them. Teach him how to harmonize the B4-4 way, show him a jammin dance move or two, and – in the climactic final scene – invite him onstage during a Madison Square Garden show. Our protagonist takes the stage, busts out some incredible moves with the guys, and drives the crowd wild. Fans rush the stage and security falls away as young Cylde is surrounded by adoring love. The B4-4 guys lift him on their strongman shoulders and carry him away, victorious… his dream forever realized.

“Pull it away..” What? “The viewfinder. Pull it away..”

“You have to pull it away..”

“It’s time for you to go. We’ll always love you..”

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The boy looks down to see three hunky faces, tears streaming. B4-4 are letting him go. He knows he must go. It will never be better than this.

He pulls the viewfinder away. He is now also crying, but he is stronger. He’s enriched by the experience, and he gives the viewfinder to his new homeless friend knowing he is giving him a gift better than any food or shelter. He is giving him a bit of boy band magic. That is priceless. That is eternal.

That’s not what we have, here.

Jesus, didn’t we all want that when we were kids? To get pulled into a magic adventureworld where everyone loved us? Didn’t we all want to break down that TV screen barrier and jump into our favorite movies and video games? I did. I did all the time. I know you did, too. We all want to hang out with that rad magic boy band in a fantasy beach on the other side of the screen.

But we never will. And heck, even if we did, we’d probably end up fucking up those rad boys’ sexual mouthplans and they’d just resent us for it. And not talk to us. And we’d walk away from B4-4 Beach, lonely and crushed. And lame.

The “Get Down” video is nothing but a reminder of this limitation. It is a useless restraint on our dreams. It deserves no more words.

WELL NOW A FEW WORDS ON THE DEBUT B4-4 RECORD, B4-4, ON WHICH “GET DOWN” IS INCLUDED

“Get Down” shares space with eleven other songs on B4-4. Hearing this record makes it clear that “Get Down”‘s seismic blast of fantasysex color flattened the energy of its surrounding tracks. Pounded them into submission. It’s almost as if the B4-4 boys and their producers used up all their resources creating the more bizarre, beautiful concoction they could imagine in “Get Down,” felt like they’d accomplished all they needed to accomplish, and took a break for the rest of the record.

So after “Get Down,” what is left? Mellow jam after mellow jam after ballad after mellow jam. Designed for sleep? Ranging from middle-of-the road nothings to pleasant groovers. I can’t say I have any problem with the likes of “Ball & Chain,” “Smile,” or “That’s How I Know” other than – y’know, they don’t do much. There are a couple attempts at power-singles: opener “Really Gotta Want It” goes for a half-hearted “Larger Than Life” give-it-up-for-the-fans vibe, and “Go Go” is an admirable attempt at a rockin’ rocker with a slammin chorus and an electrifying!! guitar solo. They come and they go, and then it’s more mellow romantic sweetness. Track after track after track.

And then, we hit track 7. “Get Down.” It is now clear what these boys wanted, all along. Those nice romantic lyrics? A feint. A sick ruse. They just wanted to get down on you, while you get down on them. And that is all.

Following “Get Down” are five more songs of sweet romance, but they’re useless now. Don’t work. How can we take a cover of “You’ve Got a Friend” seriously, from the guys who just sang “I’m gonna make you come tonight – over to my house” right in our faces? You know they’ve got 69-special-part-kissin in the back of their minds the whole time. You know what they really want.

Don’t give it to them! I know I won’t!

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No thank you please!

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Nope nope!

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BOYS!!

Is it fair to judge a full 47 minutes of music based solely on one 3 minute and 45 second chunk? The answer is yes. Because that chunk is the unavoidable vortex of strange that is “Get Down.” If it is unfair to anybody, it is to the listener. It’s B4-4’s fault for sticking that thing in the middle of an album of perfectly pleasant boy band smoothness. Why include it? Why release it??

That’s the problem. Consistency. “Get Down” is a blowjob anthem in a sea of odes to hand-holding. If B4-4‘s track listing were more like this, we’d have less of a problem:

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Gosh, that would be amazing!!

Sorry, B4-4. It’s too much. Promise I’ll give your second album a fair shake. The one that doesn’t have “Get Down” on it. Then we’ll be able to talk like adults.

Good day, sirs!

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M2M – The Big Room (2002)

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M2M’s The Big Room is the best album Digital Get Down will ever review. What else needs to be said! We are done here!

The end!

Bye Bye!

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No no no. I’m kidding! I’m joshing! Let’s talk M2M.

M2M were a Norwegian pop group that did not get the popularity or respect they deserved. This is clear. A self-contained guitar playing singing duo with gut-emotional melodies and unmistakable teenage honesty. Made some mild commercial headway internationally, but barely made any headway in the United States. The only M2M song that managed to make a dent in America was “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a teen pop song so mature and sure-headed it managed to slip the line “It’s not like we’re gonna get married” onto mainstream airwaves. I suspect it was a hit mostly ’cause it was on the Pokemon movie soundtrack and that was it. A tiny radio blip. Their debut Shades Of Purple sold OK, but its reception was not glowing. M2M were not special. They were another cutesy teen pop act in a sea of future bargain bin teenybopper stars. It wasn’t their fault. How the heck could any teen pop act hope to stand out in the year 2000, maybe the most teen-pop-clogged year in the history of recorded music?

It’s ok. We know the truth. Shades Of Purple, despite being an obvious year-2000 product, was a special record. M2M dual singer/songwriters Marit Larsen and Marion Raven were supertalented teenage girls adept at communicating what it was like being a teenage girl through their music, their distinct voices managing to overcome obvious record label meddling. But as talented and savvy as the ladies of M2M were, they were still 14 years old when they recorded Shades Of Purple. Y’know – they were kids. They didn’t know all the ins and outs just yet. As good as that record was you get the impression that the girls were pushed into recording music they didn’t really want to record. R&B and dance-pop and dated millennial pop production. It’s honestly a miracle that Shades Of Purple managed to convey even an ounce of sincerity through all that muck. And yet it did.

But that was not enough. These girls wanted to do it their own way. They were growing up and their songwriting was getting better and their voices were changing and they were hitting the age where they were starting to understand who they truly were. Adulthood was right around the corner. Time to take control of their music, knock off the sterile teen pop silliness and make the record they really wanted to make.

Spoiler alert: M2M pulled it off, likely better than any other teen pop act before or since. There’s no point in beating around the bush here. The Big Room fucking rules.

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You know, that’s not a new story. Teen pop act growing up, fighting for control of their careers and making an “adult” record. Tale as old as time. That’s the name of the game!

The Big Room is what the girls call “organic pop,” not unlike the recently discussed Never Gone by the Backstreet Boys: all live instruments. Full band arrangements. No slicked up Shades Of Purple teen pop corniness to be found here. This is a development I fully support, but before I get goofy and slobber praise all over this record I love deep in my heart I feel like I need a second to put myself in check. I tend to go overboard with praise when a teen pop act goes for the live band rock ‘n roll approach – your Hansons, your BBMaks, your McFlys. Because I like rock music a lot!

But I want to make one thing clear, for all of you as well as myself – the live band approach is not inherently superior to the glitzy synthetic modern pop approach. It’s not more “legitimate,” or “natural,” or whatever other buzzwords tend to pop up. I understand why Marion and Marit called this stuff “organic pop,” but that implies the production of Shades Of Purple was inorganic which I just don’t buy. I can only say I enjoy the teen pop live instrument trick ’cause live instruments sound good to my ears. That’s it, really.

What I am getting at here is that I endorse teen pop artists doing their own thing, in whatever way they want to do it. Whether that be *NSYNC’s over-the-top glitz, Beyonce’s world-dominating R&B or late-80s New Edition’s killer New Jack jams. Despite their dubious origins, most teen pop artists are talented young music people with good ideas, and given the chance they will produce – for the lack of a better term – rad, killer awesome shit.

I’m so happy someone out there gave M2M that chance. My guess was that Shades Of Purple was a big enough international hit to afford the girls some freedom, so they fucking took that opportunity and ran with it. And so, we have The Big Room.

OK! I’m done! It’s gush time!

It can’t underestimate what a leap The Big Room is. If you’re like me (which I am certain you are) and spent many lonely nights spinning Shades Of Purple over and over again, hearing “Everything” – The Big Room‘s opener – for the first time is a stunning experience. Pure shock. Baffled reactions abound. “Whoa – jangly guitars? Those drums! Jesus – is that Marion singing? When did her voice get GOD-SLAYER HUGE? Did they just say ‘damn’? Did they just emphasize the word ‘damn’? THEY SAID ‘DAMN’!!”

Ah yes. This was M2M’s plan all along. “Everything” is the most surprising and impressive adulthood level-up I’ve heard from a teen pop group. Kinda like hearing Taylor Hanson’s manly new soulvoice on This Time Around for the first time, but better. M2M do it better. This is a jump. A leap. It is a blessing to hear.

Let’s keep in mind, these girls started their music careers at what – age 13? 14? They were a kid act. Kid acts have it rough, ’cause eventually they lose their kid voices. Their cute kid self that everybody loves dies, and if they don’t reinvent themselves in the right way and win over a new adult audience they’re done. Sink or swim. Gosh, they might even lose their voices! Wouldn’t that be a nightmare!!

No problems here. Marion Raven’s voice is almost unrecognizable. It’s just… huge. A force to be reckoned with. Marit’s voice doesn’t sound too different from how she sounded on the last album but that’s ok – Marion’s voice alone is enough to knock M2M’s cutey-novelty factor down at least 3 or 4 pegs. And it adds to their duo appeal, having the calm sweet Marit balancing out the powervoiced titan Marion.

Oh hey, and did I mention the live instruments? It’s all live instruments here! Yes I did but it’s time to mention them again! Do they sound great! They sound great! This is exactly what M2M should sound like. Drums bass guitar. Rockin’ guitar. Whoa, the guitar! How many guitar solos are on this thing? Like twelve?? Twelve guitar solos. Whoa man! Whoa!!

Again, I don’t want to fetishize the “live band” thing, but I don’t think there’s any arguing that it is a serious upgrade for M2M. Shades Of Purple‘s production was content to let its tracks just kinda sit around. Like lame ducks. The Big Room is nothin but well-fed excited ducks. Every song jumps right at you. Even the ballads! They’ve got a kick to ’em! It’s exciting! Wow, this is exciting!!

So what we have here is a wholly self-contained teen pop act. Take a look at those writing credits – with the exception of only three tracks, every track on here is written solely by Marion and Marit. They’ve cut out everyone who might muck up their vision. No awkward Full Force collaborations on here. They don’t need anybody else.

The Big Room lacks Shades Of Purple‘s innocence. That vulnerability. Remember “Mirror Mirror”? That youthful brokenhearted feeling? “Everyone knows friends don’t do that”? Yeah, none of that here. In its place is iron-hearted resolve. Independence. Self-determination. The Big Room takes heartbreak and kicks it into the sewer drain.

Oh yes, we’ve got some vulnerable moments, like “Love Left For Me” and the power ballad “Wanna Be Where You Are.” But then we have “Jennifer,” a necessary reversal of Purple‘s “Don’t Mess With My Love” where the girls go after the shitty boyfriend instead of the lady he shouldn’t be flirting with (good! that guy sucks!!). You’ve got the manipulative boyfriend putdown “Don’t,” the stalker-ex putdown “Leave Me Alone,” the shitty boyfriend and brother and dad putdown of “Sometimes” and – best of all – the obnoxious popular girl putdown of “Miss Popular.” These are primo teen pop putdowns of the highest order. There is no grey area here: if you stink, the ladies of M2M are going to put you DOWN, in a SONG, with their ROCKIN’ BAND. And you DESERVE it. They are Holy Judgement. They are better than you.

None of this would work at all if these songs weren’t all melodic and exciting and snappy, and if Marit and Marion didn’t harmonize so well and sing with conviction, and if these tracks didn’t rock as hard as they do. Because they really do. It’s a perfect marriage of a new self-determined lyrical voice and an exciting new musical direction. The Big Room is a triumph of teenage independence. It should have been a slam-dunk baller-ass major hit.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that it wasn’t, right? This is probably the first time you’ve heard of this album. Heck, it might be the first time you’ve heard of M2M! I’m making myself sad.

The Big Room sold piddly-tiddly-squat. Nothing. I’m almost certain it did not sell a single copy in the United States of America (please, if anybody of my fellow Statesfolk has their own copy on CD, prove me wrong). Sold mild amounts in Europe. Sold like gangbusters in the Phillipines, which is nice, but did Atlantic Records give a shit? Atlantic Records did not give a shit. Bottom line, M2M produced one of the best teen pop records ever and were rewarded by getting dropped from their label and kicked off a tour opening for their hero Jewel. In the middle of the tour. Yikes.

Hey, imagine that! Imagine if you poured everything you had into making a record ten times better than your last one, only to see it sell less. And get punished for it. What would you do? What would be your reaction. Mine would be to find a dog and eat it. I’d eat an entire dog, butthole to snout. Then I would throw it up and poop on the throw up and eat that. Then I would clean up the mess I had made and cry. That is how I would react!

M2M reacted by breaking up. I don’t know the details. I don’t know if it was acrimonious or cordial. Or somehow both? They just “disbanded.” That’s what Wikipedia says. I can’t find anything anywhere else. I’ll never know the answer, for as long as I live. Both started successful solo careers not long after, Marion going in a more pop direction and Marit with a more singer-songwriter thing.

You think they’re on OK terms? Do you think they’d ever reunite? I mean, there’s only two of them! It could happen! Does anybody have their email addresses?? I’m just – oh gosh I don’t know. Maybe if I emailed them and told them how much I loved The Big Room I could convince them. You think maybe? Aww shucks – aww. Naww. No.

No. No, I can’t. M2M were too good for this world. In the meantime, we have The Big Room, a classic in a genre that honestly doesn’t have a whole lot of them. I don’t know what else I can say. Cherish it. The Simon & Garfunkel of millennial teen pop deserves a little more attention.

Or… the Hall & Oates of millennial teen pop?? You decide!

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